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Computers Understanding Thought

Clark Dorman dorman at acs.bu.edu
Fri Nov 25 09:37:37 EST 1994

In article <3b4qec$7r5 at lyra.csx.cam.ac.uk> 92tad at eng.cam.ac.uk (T.A. Donaldson) writes:

>   I have heard about an experiment in which a computer was able to pick up
>and understand the THOUGHTS Yes or No, and also move a cursor around the
>screen by picking up thoughts.
>   I understand that this was done by using SQUIDS (superconducting quantum
>interference devices), and have found a lot of articles on the technical side
>of setting up SQUIDS (see IEEE Transactions on Applied Superconductivity
>1993), which suggest that this is possible.
>   However, I have not found any article in which the meaning of the neural
>data collected was succesfully understood by computer.
>   Does anyone know of the research I am talking about and could tell me what
>journal articles apply? Anyone got any related information?
>   Tom Donaldson 

In the Health/Science section of the Boston Globe, on Monday, August 16, 1993,
there was an article about several researchers do work on this area.  Not
exactly a peer-reviewed journal. 

The systems have been used to do several things, including such publicity
stunts as steering a boat.  Most of the systems use scalp electrodes rather
than SQUIDs.

People mentioned in the article:  

	Andrew Junker, from Yellow Springs, Ohio, engineer. (boat steering)

	Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw, neurologist, and Dennis McFarland, psychologist,
	  at NY State Health department (cursor moving)

	Grant McMillan, director of brain-actuated research program at Wright
	  Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio (missile selection, radar mode, etc.)

	Eric Sutter, scientist at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research (disabled
	  computer interface)
	Dr. Emanuel Donchin, psychology prof at U. of Illinois (letter typing)

You might try searching on the people above, especially Donchin.  

Personally, I am _extremely_ skeptical that what is happening is based upon
brain patterns.  Because they are using scalp electrodes in most cases (where
the equipment is even mentioned), the noise from muscles can easily swamp the
brain waves.  If you look at scalp recording in other fields, they usually
have to average over many operations to determine the underlying brain
activity.  Most of these people are probably fooling themselves into thinking
that they are getting brain waves, when what is really happening is that the
subjects are learning to contract various muscles in the scalp.  Just as you
can learn to wiggle your ears by simply practicing in front of a mirror, you
can learn to move your other muscles. 

I think that the systems, even if based on muscle contractions, can be very
useful for the disabled.  A combination system, based on visual tracking, with
cues from scalp recording, could be more useful than the systems that are
based purely on visual tracking now.  

Even if the researchers _are_ getting brain measurements, don't expect any
sort of decoding of the brain activity that will give any content.  Examine
the PET, MRI, and CAT scanning literature.  The researchers in those fields
are still working on determining where activity occurs, and in what order,
when different tasks are being done.  

Clark Dorman
Cognitive and Neural Systems
Boston University

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